Clemson looked a lot more like itself last week vs. GT in the rain. The defense was outstanding and the offense was good enough to put the game away by the third quarter. The elements were a factor, but Clemson handled them a lot better than the visiting Yellow Jackets. Now the Tigers have reached November with every goal still on the table. The division title goal, which is the lynch pin for making the playoffs, requires a win this weekend in Raleigh against NCST.
Everybody knows about last year’s escape when the Wolfpack nearly made Clemson pay for numerous turnovers and mistakes, but they could not finish the job with a late field goal and fell in O.T. Of course, just like the chickens expecting a huge turnover margin in the favor to happen all the time — somehow thinking getting out-gained while winning isn’t a sign of future problems — any Wolfpack fan thinking Clemson will have the freakish turnovers (who can forget that one fumble from Mike Williams?) which occurred last year again is pretty naive. I’m not saying NCST cannot win this game, but I am saying they will need to play very, VERY well to do so. This Clemson team isn’t in the business of beating itself too much. Unfortunately for NCST, as it was for GT, the Tigers have already laid their egg for the season at Syracuse.
Clemson offense vs. NCST defense: I heard all about the NCST front in the offseason and it is a good one. I couldn’t wait to see them lay waste to Jake Bentley in Charlotte to begin the season. Of course, it didn’t matter because the porous Wolfpack secondary got abused by Deebo Samuel. Nothing I’ve seen since then has led me to believe the Pack has any prayer of matching up with Clemson on the outside. They will have to hope that front is so dominant that Clemson can’t establish any sort of run game AND can’t protect long enough to complete a pass to the what WILL be open guys running through their back end. Yes, I know what happened in Syracuse, but that was also made possible by an inexplicably bad outing by the Tiger defense. Folks forget the offense was moving it just fine with two touchdowns and another drive deep in Orange territory derailed by a missed chip shot field goal. The problem was the defense didn’t show up while the offense had some rhythm. The NCST defense desperately needs the NCST offense to help them out by controlling the ball. If not, what happened in the second half vs. the Irish last week will happen again. Folks shouldn’t forget this offensive line gets to practice against the best defensive front in the country every day, NCST won’t bring anything they haven’t already seen. Kelly Bryant looked a lot better last week (thankfully) and should be even closer to 100% for this game.
Clemson has continued to add wrinkles to the run game as the season has gone on. The OL certainly has blocked well enough to force teams to bring extra hats down into the box either pre-snap or right after the snap. Clemson put that nice seam route to the TE on film once again for opposing teams to chew on. That ball was out so fast after the PA that no pass rush short of a complete bust could stop it. Clemson had a few more excellent opportunities for big passing plays that were just missed last week as well. Better weather conditions likely make at least one of those misses a hit. As long as Bryant is at the controls, especially when he can run, NCST is in a serious quandary. I’ve stated before that I’m more concerned with their head hunting/targeting ways more than anything else. Bryant and others will need to be smart about engaging defenders and especially when/if they are held up in a pile. The NCST safeties are not nearly the quality of what BC or GT brought to the table and I really like Clemson’s backs against them in one on one situations, ESPECIALLY Etienne. The Pack had much better safety play last year.
Clemson defense vs. NCST offense: To me, this is the biggest matchup to watch on Saturday. Clemson just has not lost since 2014 unless the opposing offense was able to maintain some kind of run game and have very good QB play. Alabama’s Jake Coker played really, really well in 2015’s national title game; Pitt’s Nate Peterman played the best game of his career in Death Valley last year, and Syracuse’s Eric Dungey played about as well as he could play in the Carrier Dome this season. Ryan Finley is a capable quarterback, as we know, and is certainly capable of making the right decisions and accurate throws required to handle a defense like Clemson’s. However, he has really very little shot of that without at least an OK running game. Clemson has to stop the run much better than it did a year ago, but NCST had the right kind of back in Matt Dayes to use against Clemson. I know Nyheim Hines is very fast, but I think a more physical back is required to really challenge the Tiger front. Hines’ ankle will be very interesting to watch, because if he’s limited or out, NCST’s chances fall off a cliff. Gallaspy is not the back Dayes was even though he is their “bruiser”, so to speak.
I do expect NCST to run a boat load of shifts and motions and also try to use hyper-tempo to combat the Clemson defense’s multiplicity. These things are still around from the Matt Canada days there and Doeren’s background with HUNH offenses. Clemson will need to be sound on these shifts and not allow them to get folks out of gaps or lose the dangerous Hines or Jaylen Samuels in the flats or on wheel routes. I would expect Brent Venables to trust his corners to hold up against NCST’s outside receivers and dedicate more attention to the (in my opinion) much more dangerous backfield/TE/slot options. This is a good NCST offense, but it becomes very limited when the run game is eliminated as it was when they lost to USCjr and Notre Dame. If NCST is able to come out of the gate hot like Pitt did in 2016 and Syracuse did this year, this game will be in question without a doubt. I think we will know how this will go from the first quarter. Really, outside of Auburn, Clemson has asserted dominance from the opening snap in all the other contests, put teams on the back foot, and rode the defense out to victory.
Special Teams: There is no real reason for either team to have a ton of confidence in its place kicking. Hines is a return weapon, as are Etienne and McCloud for Clemson, but the Tiger coverage has been outstanding (shout out to Chad Smith and Skalski for being heat seeking missiles on kick coverage). They will need to be strong because Spence has not been able to get the ball to the endzone much as a kickoff guy. As usual, Clemson just needs to be sound in this phase and not allow it to help an underdog gain traction.
Overall: There is a lot to worry about in regards to NCST’s veteran roster and capable quarterback. There is the chance Clemson’s right tackles have big problems with the Wolfpack DE’s. There should be a rowdy crowd on hand for this as well. However, the bigger the game, the bigger the stage, the bigger the stakes, the more I like Clemson to play well. As Dabo has said many times, “We are built for this.” The Wolfpack just haven’t shown they can come through in this type of game. They will have the Tigers’ full attention, and that will be all that is required.
Clemson 33 NCST 20